The Ojibwe Take A Stand For Treaty Rights, Hoping To Defeat A Pipeline

They're pointing to pacts signed by the tribe and the U.S. in the 1800s.

About 40 members of several Ojibwe communities in Minnesota staged a protest this week over their right to hunt, fish and harvest wild rice off the reservation, seeking to provoke a peaceful confrontation with law enforcement.

The protesters, who have organized themselves as the 1855 Treaty Authority, intentionally violated Minnesota state laws and regulations that prohibit the Ojibwe from harvesting wild rice off-reservation. The protest on Thursday and Friday took place on Hole-in-the-Day Lake and Gull Lake, near Nisswa in central Minnesota.

The 1855 Treaty Authority argues that the state laws violate rights that the Ojibwe were guaranteed under treaties signed between the tribe and the U.S. government in the 1800s. Those treaties ceded Ojibwe lands to the United States, but protected the Natives’ rights to hunt, fish and gather off the reservation, the group claims.

The protest tactic is reminiscent of “fish-ins” that the late Nisqually tribal member Billy Frank Jr. led in the Pacific Northwest during the 1960s and ‘70s. Those fish-ins deliberately violated state laws against Native fishing in order to re-assert rights stipulated in treaties signed between Indian nations and the U.S. They led to the decriminalization of Native fisheries and the legal protection of treaty rights to fish in Washington state, now overseen by the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

The showdown in Minnesota was originally slated for Thursday, but was temporarily defused when the state Department of Natural Resources issued an unrequested special one-day permit allowing the band members to harvest wild rice. 

Normal enforcement practices resumed Friday, and the Department of Natural Resources cited Todd Thompson of the White Earth band and Jim Northrup of the Fond du Lac band for “taking fish by illegal methods” on Gull Lake, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. Thompson and Northrup used a traditional Ojibwe gillnet to fish on Gull Lake, where netting fish is illegal.

Col. Ken Soring of the Department of Natural Resources told The Huffington Post that the Ojibwe fishermen face “gross misdemeanor charges for gillnetting.” In addition, Soring said, his department cited two unnamed wild rice harvesters who could also face misdemeanor charges, which would likely result in fines or the loss of state hunting and fishing rights. 

“The DNR does not recognize reservation harvest rights in the 1855 treaty,” Soring said. “We welcome harvest, but it would be under state licensing and state laws.”

The protesters have vowed to continue harvesting wild rice against state laws to provoke further confrontation with law enforcement. The 1855 Treaty Authority has said they will challenge the citations and fight for Ojibwe treaty rights in court.

“It’s all about having our treaty rights recognized finally and completely and forever,” said Frank Bibeau, an attorney representing the 1855 Treaty Authority. “The state of Minnesota is without power over our treaty rights.”

Bibeau said he is confident that treaties between the U.S. and the Ojibwe, as well as prior case law, set the precedent for the White Earth and other bands to re-assert rights to hunt, fish and gather.

The lawyer and others affiliated with the tribe want to push their case even further, however, asserting their treaty rights as a means of stopping oil and gas pipelines. The proposed route of the Sandpiper project, part of an aggressive expansion of pipelines in the region by Canadian oil company Enbridge, runs near the White Earth Nation, while the older Minnesota Pipe Line already crosses the area. Some Ojibwe worry that these pipelines could permanently pollute the land, water and food that has sustained their people for generations.

“What we want to do ultimately, beyond the rights to hunt, fish and gather, is really to protect our environment,” said Bibeau. “We are facing four different kinds of pipeline projects right now through Northern Minnesota, through the lakes, rivers and even the headwaters of the Mississippi.”

“Our responsibility as the people here is to take care of that land and to take care of that rice and to take care of everything the Creator gave us,” said Winona LaDuke, a White Earth tribal member and two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate. “The issue is, how are you going to be able to eat your rice if there’s oil in it?”